Several heads roll, though it’s your mind that'll get truly blown by “The Green Knight,” a visually dazzling and thoughtful trip back to Camelot.
Director David Lowery, who crafted the magnificent and elegiac “A Ghost Story,” adapts a 14th-century epic poem into a surprisingly relevant and gleefully weird coming-of-age tale full of distressed ghosts, scheming bandits, naked giants and a talking fox. It’s not always obvious what points “The Green Knight” (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters and on video-on-demand platforms now) is trying to make, as Lowery chooses to leave a lot for audience interpretation. But here’s a fact: With a career-best performance, Dev Patel shines in a sumptuous, dark fantasy about honor, consequence and mortality.
In this story of “chivalric romance,” Sir Gawain (Patel,) is the brash young nephew of King Arthur who yearns to be a knight of the Round Table but also cavorts in hedonistic fashion with lover Essel (Alicia Vikander). At a Christmas feast, an aging Arthur (Sean Harris) offers Gawain a place at his side and asks attendees for a great story.
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Enter the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a mysterious treelike figure who arrives to challenge a brave knight to a Christmas “game”: They can land a blow on him and take his mighty ax, but in return, they have to venture to the Green Knight’s chapel exactly a year later and receive the same strike in return. Gawain accepts, and when the Green Knight bows, the wannabe knight lops off his head with a sword. The formidable figure grabs his noggin and leaves, Gawain is an instant celebrity in the kingdom, and a year later, Gawain heads off on a quest that could be the death of him.
The landscape Lowery creates for that journey is a wondrous work of art in itself, from rolling hills to vast forests where treachery and life lessons await our hero. The various episodes are full of colorful characters – including Erin Kellyman as a spirited woman who needs Gawain's help and Barry Keoghan as a scavenger looking for a bit of kindness – as well as an enjoyably dark sense of humor. “Green Knight” takes its time to revel in each meeting and locale, especially when Gawain is taken in by a kindly lord (Joel Edgerton) and his temptress wife (also Vikander) and gifted a helpful green belt.
Gawain’s travails give Patel, who broke through in 2008's “Slumdog Millionaire” and garnered an Oscar nod for “Lion,” a wide-ranging showcase for his talents. The character’s ostensibly a brat living the good life because of his powerful uncle, and mother – Arthurian figure Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury) – and his yearning to be a good Sir inevitably unlocks a man-child needing to grow up. The conflict between Gawain and the Green Knight, one of youthful vigor vs. ages-old nature, gives Patel free rein to emotionally explore a man having to figure himself out in the most fantastical of circumstances.
There are shades of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” and John Boorman’s “Excalibur” in “The Green Knight,” although Lowery’s film feels wonderfully fresh even while mining old-school legend. The filmmaker delves into the ancient push and pull between Christianity and paganism, with frequent use of religious imagery and puts together a sensational climactic sequence that out-cools most episodes of “Game of Thrones.”
“The Green Knight” is so unlike anything else that, whether or not you’re an Arthurian scholar, you’ll lose your head over it.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Green Knight' review: Dev Patel leads a dazzling Arthurian quest